Creative people live with senses that are ever open to take in the world and with imaginations that generate too many ideas to handle at any given time. It’s vital, thrilling, and stimulating for me to collect ideas as they come and assemble them into treasure chests into which I can dive gleefully when the spirit moves me.
I keep four different kinds of treasure chests.
The most important are my notebooks. Once a specific project is really taking off, it gets its own binder, but my most important creative treasure chests are my idea notebooks. As I read and come upon a phrase or idea that stands out for its interest or for the thoughts that cascade from it, I immediately underline it in the book or article. After I have finished the book or article, I transcribe its juiciest, most thought-provoking ideas into my current idea notebook.
If I am out and about and see a phrase that grabs me on a signboard or the side of the bus, I record it right there and then into a traveling journal I keep in my bag for that purpose. But once I get home, I transcribe it immediately into my current idea book.
Every so often just for fun, or when I am ready to start something new or need an idea, I go through my current or even my old idea notebooks to see what treasures I might be able to use alone or in combination in a project of the moment. I know many visual artists do this with their sketchbooks. If I were a visual artist, I know I would!
The second sort of treasure chest I keep is along the lines of the creative practice described by choreographer Twyla Tharp in her book The Creative Habit. For every project she keeps a sturdy box and throws in any and every inspiration she comes upon that she might want to draw into the work.
I have for this purpose an old Chinese multi-layered bakery box, decorated in rust and green enamel of flowers and birds . In each tier I store cards, images, scraps, and artifacts, ready for me to rifle through at will. Right now I use the bakery box only for projects with a visual component.
And then there are my “piles,” on my chunky-legged dining room worktable. Individual tall piles of papers for different projects may sound like disorganization, but this system very much isn’t for a certain type of creative person. Many of us were, in fact, delighted to see this system of organization vindicated to the world in an August article on the widely read Lateral Action blog.
Kirsten Simmons, creativity coach and guest blogger, wrote an article in August called Organization for Creative People. In that article she identified a type of creative much more pervasive than most people think which she called the Fantastical. She described the Fantastical as follows:
“You have a unique ability to dive into a difficult problem and emerge hours or days later with a perfect solution. But in order to do this, you need to keep all the pieces of the problem in front of you.’
I could just hear readers the world over, ever criticized for a system of organization others just could not understand, yelling YESSS!!!! in unison.
For the Fantastical, as she calls him, Kristen advises a form of organization that is very much like Tharp’s but for written materials rather than artifacts. She writes:
“Clear off enough space on your desk to create a pile for each project you’re working on. Contrary to popular belief, you do know exactly what’s in all those piles, and you need to keep them front and center where you can see them.”
She argues that organizing within piles or in files for the Fantastical is a bad plan. Fantasticals want to play with complexity in their ideas but cannot be bothered with elaborate systems of self-organization.
Yes, I am a piles person. I have a pile of papers for each active project closest to my work area and piles for less active projects farther away. Only materials I won’t need in the next few months are filed away in the basement. I also have piles of different kinds of books I want at arm’s reach- one for books related to creativity and learning theory and practice, one pile for math education and problem solving, and one for narrative writing.
This sort of system of treasure chests obviously wouldn’t work for everyone, as Kirsten acknowledges and I with her. But it has worked for me for forty productive years.